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  • Writer's pictureMaya Kirby

What are Baos?

Mention Chinese food, and many people think of rice - they'd be correct, but only partially. Rice is grown very successfully in the warm climate of southern China, but it's a different story in the north. In these cooler regions, wheat is the staple grain. While southern Chinese cuisine traditionally consisted of rice, fish, vegetables, and fruit, in northern China, the food is much heartier: think meats, dumplings, and thick noodles... In fact, without wheat, many delicious Chinese food items wouldn't exist.

One particular item has seen its global popularity surge in recent years - the humble bao. Its full name is baozi (包子), which means "steamed bun". Flour is made into a yeast-leavened dough, packed with a filling, then steamed until fluffy. There are plenty of variations in filling and size - some dim sum are as small as ping pong balls, while in other regions in northern China, they're as large as 15cm across. Some baozi are not stuffed, but are similar to a sandwich, with the bun folded over around the filling.

But where did baos originate, and who invented them?

The story starts just after 220AD (the end of the Han dynasty). During this time, parts of southern China had separated from the rest of the country (this partially explains the difference in cuisines - without the ability to trade during this time, separate regions could only eat what grew well according to their geography).

With the old Han leaders overthrown, China was in political disarray. One general, Zhuge Liang, was returning after defeating a barbarian King in the south. According to legend, he and his soldiers had to stop at the edge of the Lu river because it was too dangerous to cross. After many failed attempts, a barbarian lord told them that a deity lived in the river. The spirit would grant the men safe crossing... In exchange for 50 human heads.

The tactical general was unwilling to decapitate any of his soldiers. Instead, he ordered the slaughter of his horses and other animals that the group had taken with them. The meat was wrapped in dough made of flour and water, formed into head-shaped buns, and steamed.

As the story goes, this plan was successful: the 'heads' appeased the deity, the river parted, and Zhuge Liang crossed the river without killing any of his men.

And so, the steamed bun was born, initially known as mantou (饅頭). The characters in traditional Chinese are a homophone for mántóu (蠻頭), meaning "barbarian's head". Nowadays, mantou can mean either a filled or unfilled bun (but generally refers to an unfilled, flat bun), and baozi exclusively means a bun with filling.

The buns' popularity means they're available in many countries - you can now find variations in Japan, Singapore, Malaysia, and of course, their native China. One of the most intricate styles of bao to make is the Xiao Long Bao (小笼包), which originated from the Jiangsu province in China. They have a soft, thin dough skin filled with a meat jelly: while being steamed, the jelly melts into soupy broth.

Has all this talk of delicious steamed baos made you hungry? You're in luck - Hotpot Spot has a selection of baos available to order, from the classic char siu pork to our vegan spicy tofu. We hand-make our baos onsite, and use traditional bamboo steamer baskets for an authentic taste of China.

Check out our menu with both vegan and non-vegan baos at

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